French prosecutors open war crime probe linked to Groupe Castel unit in Central African Republic

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PARIS, July 1 (Reuters) - French anti-terrorism prosecutors have opened an investigation into allegations of potential complicity in war crimes made against Groupe Castel in the Central African Republic (CAR), a source close to the matter told Reuters on Friday.

A local unit of the French drinks conglomerate is suspected of having made payments to local militia, the source said.

A spokesman for Groupe Castel said the company was fully cooperating with French authorities on the matter and that an internal investigation following the first accusations had shown no evidence of wrongdoing.

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The investigation follows a report pubished by The Sentry last year which said the group's subsidiaries had deals to provide armed militia UPC with cash and vehicle support in order to secure regional market position.

The United Nations says the UPC has killed, tortured, raped, and displaced civilians, and engaged in arms trafficking, illegal taxation and warfare.

The source said the probe that opened in Paris did not formally target the group or executives, but had been opened "against X", which allows prosecutors to investigate in all directions.

Groupe Castel, headquartered in the Bordeaux region, is one the world's biggest wine and beverages conglomerates, selling some of Africa's most popular beers. French business magazine Challenges estimates the Castel family's fortune at around 14 billion euros ($15 billion).

CORPORATE CRIME

French authorities, supported by human rights groups, are stepping up action against corporate wrongdoing linked to conflicts abroad.

In May, a Paris appeals court rejected a request by French cement maker Lafarge (HOLN.S) to dismiss charges of complicity in crimes against humanity and endangering lives for keeping a factory running in Syria after conflict broke out in 2011. read more

The case is considered a landmark ruling for holding Western companies accountable for acts commited when operating abroad.

With the launch of the investigation linked to Castel, The Sentry's lawyers Clemence Witt and Anaïs Sarron told Reuters the prosecutor's office would now be able to hear witnesses and order searches and seizures.

"The prosecutor's office will now launch its investigations in order to establish the truth," they said.

"War profiteering has fueled long-term and devastating armed conflicts throughout the world, too often without legal and financial consequences for the perpetrators," said John Prendergast, who co-founded The Sentry alongside actor George Clooney.

Prendergast said the move should show multinational companies that they can be held to account for criminal operations - even in countries with deficient judicial systems.

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Reporting by Sarah Morland, editing by Tassilo Hummel, Gareth Jones and Angus MacSwan

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